Q&A with COO Castellini about GABP plans

March 25th, 2021

CINCINNATI -- The finishing touches are being made to get Great American Ball Park ready for watching Reds baseball in 2021.

After no fans were permitted inside during the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reds are happy to deliver some sense of normalcy back to baseball.

In an era of extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, how might the fan experience be different this season?

MLB.com spoke with Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini on Wednesday to discuss the plans and policies.

MLB.com: How does it feel to be able to welcome fans back to Great American Ball Park again, even with limited capacity?

Castellini: Well, it’s great. I think like all of us, we started with, "Oh, this thing is only going to be a couple of months and we’ll get back to normal." I think a couple of months in, we figured out it would take way more than a year. We experienced a whole season without fans. We saw the expected fall spike [in COVID-19 cases] after a summer [spike] we didn’t expect. In November and December, I was still in a pretty conservative perspective of what Opening Day would look like.

MLB.com: Based on the 30 percent capacity allowed by the state of Ohio, it’s going to be roughly 12,000 fans?

Castellini: You can imagine there are small nuance changes depending on pod sizes and how each section is divvied up. But the math loosely translates to about 12,000 per game.

MLB.com: For those 12,000 people, how will the experience be different than what was last experienced in 2019?

Castellini: Certainly, Opening Day will feel two-thirds different. There’s no parade, no block party. Those are things we’ve come to have really well connected to Opening Day and what makes it special here in Cincinnati. As long as we all recognize that we’re not having those parts of the event, I think people are going to be excited to have it back. At college sports and PGA events, they say the crowds are smaller, but they seem loud [coming] from dead silence. There is an energy and excitement being brought back to the live sports venue that none of the sports had for about a year. I think it’s going to be exciting. I am hoping those 12,000 sound like 30-something thousand. It’s a turning of a page that we’re getting back to normal the fact we’re having fans at all. You take the good with the bad.

MLB.com: For the empty seats, will there be cardboard cutouts again?

Castellini: We are strapping seats down with zip ties that are not intended to be used at all. We had a great success with the fan cutouts last year, so we’ve made them available again through the Reds Community Fund as an Opening Day package bundle. You’ll see a couple of hundred of those, but we’ll only put up as many as people buy. You won’t see extended signage across the seats like you saw last year just because you have to spread 12,000 fans out across every square inch of the stadium. The groups -- we refer to them as pods -- will be pods of two, four or six, and then you have six feet of distance between those pods.

I almost hate to say this, but in those years of Redsfest where we had bad weather and sometimes it affects the attendance numbers, for those people who come -- you could argue it could have been a better Redsfest experience, [with] less lines, fewer crowds. Part of this outcome for games, there won’t be the long beer lines and bathroom lines and everything else -- you have to look at the silver lining for things like this.

MLB.com: What are the safety protocols fans will encounter upon entering GABP and once they are inside?

Castellini: Having the NFL go ahead of us and the MLB playoffs, we kind of have a good playbook from those who opened venues like ours. The first thing you’ll see is a signage overlay that will remind you, "Let’s keep each other safe while we cover all the bases," with the bases being masks, distance and hand washing and so forth. You will hear P.A. announcements with those friendly reminders. Our staff will remind you as you traverse the ballpark. You’ll see stickers on the ground at points of sale and bathroom lines to remind of what the spacing looks like when you’re in queue lines. We are touchless as much as we can be. We’re going cashless. No vendors in the aisles or that sort of thing. There will be no backpacks with the exception of kids and diaper bags and that sort of thing. We’re just trying to minimize those things that used to be normal. Where those touch points are that can be avoided, we’re attempting to do so.

MLB.com: What is the mask-wearing policy?

Castellini: All the time, unless you are physically eating or drinking. In between sips, we ask you to pull your mask back up. It’s one of the challenges we think will be the most difficult to prepare for. At bars and restaurants, when you get to the table with your group, it’s acceptable to not wear them while at your table. If we have any concern, it’s fans that get to their seats with their group, they’ll think they’re free to take it off.

In our case, that is not the case. It will be more like the airport and airlines model. Yeah, you can eat and drink, but we need you to put it back on in between all of that. After a couple of weeks, we think everybody will kind of go with the flow and be used to what it looks like in the ballpark.

MLB.com: Will ushers and security enforce mask-wearing and how?

Castellini: Good question. I can tell you I recently went to Disney World with my son for the first time. In talking about the Reds' way in the past, we very much steal shamelessly from Disney and Ritz-Carlton and those we think do a great job in customer service. I can tell you if you ask me who’s in charge of safety or COVID protocols at Disney, the answer is every single full-time employee. That experience is what we plan to mimic at Great American Ball Park. Everyone working a game day is going to be giving a friendly reminder of what the mask protocol is throughout the whole venue. I thought Disney did it very professionally and politely.

MLB.com: What if somebody becomes ornery about mask wearing?

Castellini: They will be told several times there is an opportunity to stay as long as they comply. But if they refuse to comply, they would be politely asked to leave the venue.

MLB.com: Will fans be able to roam the concourses, even if it’s not near their seating pod?

Castellini: You’re allowed to roam the ballpark. As a matter of fact, we encourage that. But the standing room gathering, there will be less of that. If you want to walk around the bowl and eat the Fry Box or the chili stand and it’s not close to your seat, you’re welcome to do that. Just socially distance as you traverse the concourses and once you get in line.

We ask everybody to sit in the seat they’ve been given. That seat-hopping stuff that’s become traditional in live venues, that’s going to be frowned upon because it will be difficult enough to manage without everyone trying to seat hop.

MLB.com: Has there been guidance from MLB or Ohio about when you can expand capacity?

Castellini: With the league, you have to have your plans approved by them for the protocols. Otherwise, they respect and understand that the ultimate decision for occupancy per venue is much more about the region, city, state that each facility is in. In our case, our governor is looking for an opportunity to get our population down below that 50 cases per 100,000 and stay there for a couple of weeks. I think that would be a good metric from which to announce loosening things up. We hope that comes in the next few months and we can increase capacity not just in-season, but relatively early in the season.